On March 24, Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis stepped onto the golden-hued carpet to accept her honors at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards. Emblazoned on the left arm of her red-hot Dolce & Gabbana suit jacket was the word “Queer” spelled out in rhinestones.
But no one on the press line outside the Beverly Wilshire hotel asked Ellis about it. And no one inside the ballroom did either. Maybe they were too focused on her barnburner of a speech accepting one of the afternoon’s honors, but the “King Richard” star has another theory.
“I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t more people pay attention to that?’ And I was like, they probably thought it said ‘Queen,’” she tells Variety over Zoom, bursting into a hearty laugh. “It wasn’t that I was expecting any sort of major reaction or anything like that. One of my family members noticed, but nobody else did.”
That family member already knew that Ellis is bisexual — the 53-year-old has been open about her sexuality to her friends and family in Mississippi and the people she has worked with for decades. However, they told Ellis that they were “hurt” by her choice to express her sexuality so proudly and in such a public setting.
“I am a work in progress, and my family and my community are works in progress,” Ellis says. “I really believe that that is important to say because I’m not alone. We see people on the other side of it, where everybody’s good and fine: ‘Love is love.’”
But Ellis’ reality, growing up in a God-fearing family in the Bible Belt, has been different. “If they come to New York and they are around all my gay friends, they’re like, ‘Oh we’re cool.’ But don’t bring it to the house. Don’t be open with it.”
It’s potential for rejection that Ellis has had to navigate from the time she was an 8-year-old realizing she was queer. She was already that kid in Sunday school questioning misogyny in the Bible, asking “Why does a woman have to be submissive to a man?” she recalls. “And then there was this other thing about me that I also didn’t understand.” One summer when Ellis was a teenager, she remembers trying to train herself to be attracted to boys, trying “to talk my body into correct behavior.”
“The solitude of that is so lonely, it’s violent,” she says. “It’s violent because you literally have to tuck and place so many parts of you to be acceptable, so people won’t run from you and don’t want to be around you. It was exhausting. That’s what childhood was like. That’s what adolescence was like. I knew [my sexuality], but there was no template for it; there was no example of it; there was no place for it, and certainly no forgiveness for it.”
It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Ellis, who is in an 11-year relationship with a man she met in church, fully acknowledged that she’s bisexual. It happened while walking the grounds of the Sundance Lab with another female attendee.
“We were just spending time talking and hanging out,” she recalls. “We walked by this stream — those streams in Utah where it snows once, and then it becomes a beautiful, clear, clear stream — and there was a moment when the sun was hitting the water, and I was looking down in the water, and it was so clear, and I can only hear this woman’s voice behind me. I said, ‘This is how I’m supposed to feel. This is what I’ve been waiting to feel my entire life.’”
However, she says she was aware that being out would have personal consequences and repercussions. But she also knew she wasn’t hiding it.
“The way that I live my life, around the people that I live my life around, I am public about it,” Ellis says. “I’m very clear about being bisexual. I have a sweatshirt that says ‘Girl Bi’ that I wear everywhere.”
As for why her sexuality hasn’t come up in the media sooner, Ellis adds with a chuckle, “Nobody asked.”
Even though last year’s awards season generated some of the greatest Hollywood fanfare Ellis has received in her nearly 30-year, twice Emmy-nominated career, sending her along a gantlet of red carpets, cocktail parties, panels and interviews, her personal life never really came up.
“How do you work that into the conversation, in the middle of me talking about this movie?” she explains. “I’m not that chick. My job was to talk about ‘King Richard,’ the Williams family, these wonderful young women I worked with, Will Smith’s incredible work in that movie. I wasn’t going to be like, ‘And by the way, in case you ain’t heard yet…’ Because that’s artificial.”
So, ahead of the Essence Awards, Ellis asked stylists Wayman and Micah to customize her suit jacket, much like they had done with her Critics Choice Awards gown and would do for the Oscars. (Both were embroidered the words “Jax Baby,” a nod to her late mother Jacqueline.)
“They were accommodating my desires to honor people in my life, and this was one of the things that I also wanted to honor — in this way, and among Black women particularly,” she notes.
Ellis’ mission as an actor is to make Black women proud. “I want to speak for them and to them in ways where they feel honored, where they feel that I’m doing and saying something that reflects their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their aspirations,” she says.
On the flip side of that coin, though, it’s been Black women in the entertainment business who’ve said the most injurious things to her about queerness, with no regard for her sexuality. For reasons Ellis can’t quite put her finger on, people fail to recognize she’s part of the LGBTQ community.
“There is an assumption made of me — a presumption made of me. Is it because I’m a Black woman from Mississippi? Is it because I’m older?” she muses. “I don’t know what the mechanics are that goes into them not processing, or them not just being able to believe that in the same way I am Black, I am queer. This is who I am.”
Numerous colleagues have surprised Ellis with their homophobic views.
One offense arose when Ellis was workshopping a real-life character whose bisexuality came up. “This person that I was working with had a tremendous amount of anxiety about exploring that part of that character’s life,” she recalls. “I’m sitting here feeling like there’s something perverse about this woman because she’s bi, and we don’t want to talk about it, as if something is wrong with her.”
Another colleague lamented to her about having to kiss another woman in a scene. “The way she talked about it, it was almost like she was disgusted by it,” Ellis shares. “And I was just like, ‘What do I do here?’”
Because these infractions were happening so frequently — and from supposedly progressive artists no less — Ellis decided she’d had enough and addressed everyone via a mass text.
“I was like, ‘Look, I love y’all. I appreciate my relationships and friendships, working and otherwise with all of you, but you need to know that I am bisexual,’” she recounts. “So when you say things, when you have felt your most intimate with me, that are queer-phobic, you are talking about me. And it hurts.’”
Ellis got a few bewildered responses. “It doesn’t even register with them that it happens, because it’s so hetero-normative. We think that we’re on the other side of things because of what we see in media and on television and we are so not.”
She adds: “I think that’s one of the reasons why I started wearing that sweatshirt. And that’s one of the things that made me put ‘Queer’ on my sleeve that day.”
Her current focus is on expanding the range of queer representation through her work.
“There aren’t a lot of novels about Black queer women,” she observes. “There are characters, but the full experience of a Black woman being gay or bisexual, it doesn’t exist, so we’ve got to write it into existence.”
Ellis is developing a project about voting and women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (following a 2022 short film in which Ellis portrayed her fellow Mississippian), and she’s intentionally spotlighting queer characters who were involved with Hamer’s activism.
“This idea that we just decided to be gay two years ago, or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago is a lie,” she declares. Ellis says she wants more movies like the upcoming biopic of Bayard Rustin that casts Colman Domingo, her co-star in the upcoming musical remake of “The Color Purple,” as the civil rights leader.
“It is imperative that we see more of that, because it is the truth of who we are,” she says. “It is not a blemish on who we are. It is the wonderful scope of our humanity as Black folks in this country. It is something that I am insisting on, in what I bring into the world creatively.”